On Writing College Papers
(stolen from my good friend Thomas W. Smith, Chair of Humanities at Villanova University, who stole it from his friend Brad Lewis of the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America)
Apart from speaking, writing is the most important skill you can acquire in life. Clear writing is essential in all of the professions as well as in the academy. Any improvement you can make in your writing, therefore, will be a great benefit. The following notes are intended to address problems specific to the writing of undergraduate papers, especially brief ones (longer research papers involve additional skills), and concentrate on form an argument. Style is also important and on that subject one cannot do better than to study The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It is brief, powerful, and available from any decent bookstore for a cost that represents but a small fraction of its value. Buy it and read it. There are a few other stylistic rules that you should attend to: assigned papers in college courses (unless they are part of a "creative writing" class, about which let us say no more) are considered "formal writing," and in formal writing one avoids colloquialisms, slang, and the first person singular (a form that civilized and modest folk were loath to use even in conversation until fairly recently).
What is a Paper? The Elements
A paper is most simply an argument for a thesis. The thesis is a proposition usually in answer to a specific question. The question is typically provided by the assignment itself. An argument has two basic elements: propositions and evidence. The proposition is the argument itself and the evidence supports it. Argument without evidence is assertion and assertion counts for very little indeed in philosophy. If your paper lacks an argument, then it is less a paper than an unsuccessful attempt at a paper.
Any paper will contain several arguments, although one of these is most important: the thesis. The thesis is the central argument, the basic answer to the question posed in the assignment. Other arguments will be used to support the thesis and they in turn will be supported by evidence. Since the thesis is the basic argument of the paper, it needs to be stated clearly and prominently at the beginning of your paper. Often it will be the very first sentence. Here is an outline of a hypothetical paper:
(1) Assignment: Answer the following question: Why does Socrates think that philosophers should rule the city in Plato’s Republic?
(2) Thesis: Socrates thinks philosophers should rule the city because only by
making philosophers the rulers can the city solve its basic problem, civil
(3) Supporting Argument 1: Civil strife is the basic political problem in
Evidence: (1) Socrates says it directly at, e.g., 462ab
(2) Socrates also says that the greatest good for a city is unity, the opposite of civil strife, at, e.g., 423d, 459e,
(4) Supporting Argument 2: The cause of civil strife is an excessive desire
for goods that are scarce and
thus are the object of competition, e.g., honor or money.
Evidence: Socrates says this at, e.g.,…
(5) Supporting Argument 3: Philosophers are not interested in honor or money, but in wisdom, the only good not diminished for being shared and thus not the object of dangerous competition and strife.
Evidence: Socrates says it in these passages…Or, we can infer it from these passages:…
(6) Conclusion: Only by handing political power over to those who do not desire it can we avoid the kind of civil strife that plagues our city. Philosophers are the only people like this, so they need to be made to rule.
Note here that the evidence you give in support of your arguments is crucial. In the kinds of assignments you will most often face, you will be asked to argue for a particular interpretation of a particular text (e.g., The Republic in the example above, or others, like Descartes’ Discourse on Method). Your evidence, then, will take the form of citations or references to passages in the text which support your interpretation. As a rule, the more citations the better since the more evidence you have, the stronger your argument will be. Sometimes you will want to quote passages directly, though you may only need to do this when the words of the passage are particularly crucial or require emphasis. Often it is enough to indicate places in the text without directly quoting them. You can also paraphrase passages that support your argument.
Stages in Writing a Paper
Given the elements of the paper discussed above, the actual writing process should be easy to infer. In writing papers, as in many other things, the best rule is usually "do what works," although the following model procedure is a pretty trust one:
1.Read the assignment carefully and be sure you know just what the question is asking. Often the first mistake people make—and it is nearly always a fatal one—is not to read the assignment. You cannot answer a question if you do not know what it is or do not understand it. A corollary to this: Follow directions precisely. Often the assignment will specify how the paper is to be written, its form, special ways of documenting sources, etc. Following directions is part of the assignment.
2.Thoroughly research your topic. This is how you arrive at an answer to the question. Often your question will concern the
interpretation of a text (Plato’s Republic, Descartes’ Meditations, etc.), so research entails reading the text with the question in mind and looking for an answer. Mark up your text, take plenty of notes, etc.
3.Formulate a thesis. After doing your research, look at the question again and use the research you have done to formulate an
answer—one sentence if possible. This is your thesis.
4.Formulate supporting arguments as necessary. Often, as in the case given above, your thesis will require supporting arguments and so you must formulate those as well.
5.Make an outline. An outline is just a sketch of your paper. It consists of your thesis, supporting arguments, and summaries of the evidence with which you will support them. Outlines can be made in various ways and there is no need to be too concerned with particular forms. The simplest outline is just a statement of your thesis and supporting arguments listed on a page and perhaps numbered. Beneath the arguments you can list passages or give quotations that support them.
6.Draft the paper. This is the easy part since all your major work is done if you have a decent outline. Simply fill out the points in your outline with good English prose. No need to be fancy in writing. Imitate the style of late Henry James if you wish to be considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Good philosophical writing, however, usually looks more like Hemingway: simple and direct. Your aim is clarity. It was once said of John Stuart Mill that he wrote clearly enough to be found out. This is high praise for a philosopher. The declarative sentence is your mainstay. It requires two elements: a subject and a verb. Be sure you always have both.
7.Proofread. This is essential. Many students snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by simply hitting the print button after they have scribed their last sentence and handing in the result. Never do this. Always print out a draft and read it carefully for all the various errors to which the sin of Adam has made us prone: spelling, syntax, grammar, etc. Make sure your name is on the paper. Make sure the pages are numbered. While you’re at it, make sure they are in the right order and staple them together so they stay that way. Why tempt the fates? And remember the old French proverb: "God resides in the details." Papers with names, dates, or page numbers scribbled in by hand look shabby and give the impression that the author takes no pride in his work.
Where form and documentation (footnotes, bibliography, etc.) are concerned, the School of Philosophy requires that written assignments be composed (apart from differences specified by individual faculty) according to the rules laid down in Kate L. Turabian, Student’s Guide for Writing College Papers, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976). This book is usually required for sections of Philosophy 201 so there is no reason not to own a copy and be familiar with it. It is also appropriate to recall that failure to cite sources can constitute (or be construed to constitute) plagiarism (on which subject, see the section on academic honesty in the Student Handbook). Be sure to cite: (a) whenever you quote anyone; (b) whenever you paraphrase anyone; (c) whenever you rely on someone else for a basic idea or argument. If you follow this rule, you cannot be correctly charged with plagiarism.